Censorship and the Marilyn Manson Debate

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Independence Institute
Feature Syndicate Opinion-Editorial

For Immediate Release June 15, 2001

By Ari Armstrong

Few disagree that shock-rocker Marilyn Manson writes songs that are sick and revolting. Indeed, the performer seems to take pride in that very fact. The question is, what do we do about it? Ignore it or try to shut it down?

On Thursday, Manson performed at the Ozzfest concert. The day before the show, two groups held back-to-back rallies at the state capitol: Citizens for Peace and Respect (CPR), led by youth pastor Jason Janz; and Citizens for the Protection of the Right to Free Speech, led by local activist Stephanie Shearer. Both groups make some good points but stray into error.

In some respects, CPR's alliance of social conservatives wants to have its tolerance and eat it too. The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided that government schools must allow religious groups to meet on equal footing with other groups. Many conservatives laud the idea of posting the Ten Commandments in schools or allowing prayer there. Arch-conservative David Horowitz has excoriated the left for derailing his talks at colleges across the nation.

In a diverse society, the only way to make sure one's group has a voice is to permit others to express their opinions as well. Even Christianity has had its share of detractors over the centuries. As Colin Powell is quoted, "Free speech is intended to protect the controversial and even outrageous word."

CPR's strategy has also been criticized as ineffective. One local music critic referred to Manson as a "washed-up, musically insignificant 'artist' whose career was sputtering to an end." Has CPR only succeeded in putting Manson back in the spotlight? Manson himself said protesters "are doing what I want them to do -- I'm on their minds, so I'm affecting their lives." He discussed the rumors of "secretly paying them for all the good publicity they're giving me."

On the other hand, Janz and his CPR allies are on target when they want to "raise awareness" and "unite people for positive impact on our state" (www.nomanson.org). Surely parents do well when they discuss hateful messages and ideas with their children. Ignoring a problem often allows it to fester.

CPR would have attracted little controversy had they limited their energies to educating parents and children about the negative messages in Manson's lyrics and stage shows. The sticking point is whether CPR's attempt to shut down Manson's performance was improper.

Some commentators claim CPR is advocating censorship. That's a stretch. Censorship is forcibly preventing people from expressing their views. Janz did not ask the government to shut down the concert and enforce that policy with armed officers. Instead, he sought to "discourage event attendance."

The CPR web page adds, "We are simply exercising our right of free speech in asking him not to come. We have no control over whether he comes or not... We are for citizenship, not censorship." The group wants concert promoters to "exercise responsibility in who they allow to come to town," but CPR employs persuasion and public pressure -- not force -- toward that end.

Similarly, when Colorado newspapers called for the Peak radio station to pull Howard Stern, the gross New York "shock-jock," they weren't advocating censorship. As a simple example, when religious proselytizers (or salespersons) come to your door, you are not guilty of censorship for not allowing them to come inside to share their views. More generally, property owners may properly decide how their resources will be used.

It may make sense to accuse CPR of insufficient tolerance of expression, but not of censorship. Still, the group should be careful to avoid stepping over that line. While Janz said he is "not for government intervention in entertainment," he also said he supports the enforcement of "decency" and pornography laws, which make civil libertarians nervous due to their inherent ambiguity.

Janz also said there may be "limits to free speech" -- for instance, one may not yell "fire" in a crowded theater. However, yelling "fire" may not be construed as a right, because it interferes with the property rights of the theater owners. Similarly, you don't have to let any random stranger bust into your living room who wants to speak freely there. The prohibition on yelling "fire" does not justify attempts to censor rights of speech, and hopefully Janz can tell the difference.

Last year, someone in Colorado Springs heard an offensive song by rapper Eminem. The listener ratted out the radio station to the Federal Communications Commission, which fined the station $7,000. If that's not censorship, it's close to it.

Following the Columbine murders, one letter to a prominent newspaper read, "Marilyn Manson, along with all other purveyors of filth and violence, Hollywood in particular, should be indicted for murder, convicted and executed." Certainly that would count as censorship and a violation of First Amendment rights.

Fortunately, CPR has stayed within the bounds of reasonable advocacy and has not attempted to impose its moral code by government force. For that, CPR is to be commended. Further, thoughtful parents should consider Janz' substantive critique of Manson. While reasonable people may disagree over strategy, hopefully all parties can agree that Manson's lyrics, however bad they might be, pale in comparison to the horror of a government with the power to silence the citizens.

Ari Armstrong, publisher of the online newsletter COFREE, wrote this article for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Golden; http://www.i2i.org

This article, from the Independence Institute staff, fellows and research network, is offered for your use at no charge. Independence Feature Syndicate articles are published for educational purposes only, and the authors speak for themselves. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to: Editorial Coordinator, Independence Institute, 14142 Denver West Parkway, Suite 185, Golden, CO 80401. Phone (303) 279-6536 or FAX to (303) 279-4176; e-mail is webmngr@i2i.org.

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